Looking back at the Game Gear after having played most of its library

Back in early 2020, I embarked on an ambitious plan: I was going to play every non-RPG and non-sports game lineup on the Sega Game Gear.

At the start, it didn’t seem so bad as I figured it would be on par with playing games from the Nintendo Game Boy library, but Sega’s portable console was not only good at eating up batteries, but it was capable of frustrating me in ways I didn’t anticipate.

The Game Gear logo, proudly demonstrating it can do red, blue, and green.

Hyperbole aside, the Game Gear is overall an awful system, but the reasons for why it is awful became evident the more often I’d spend a Monday night entertaining folks on Twitch with a new crop of games that would find themselves often labeled as “cursed” or “jank”.

An overview of the darn thing

The Game Gear itself is a technical masterpiece for its time. Comparatively similar in specifications to its Nintendo counterpart, its origins were in Sega’s earlier console, the Master System as it was effectively a portable version of it albeit with a different screen resolution. Unlike the Game Boy, it featured a palette which offered thousands of colours (4,096) with 32 of them on screen at any given time instead of four monochromatic shades of grey atop of a green backdrop.

Yet despite Sega promoting the handheld’s graphical superiority over its competition, it could not muster more than one sale for every ten that Nintendo made. Reasons for this were numerous, but it is wise to suggest that it was probably because of the six AA batteries required to operate it with a maximum runtime of three hours. The colour screen came at a cost because the Game Boy could use four of the same batteries and be able to provide a playtime on them of five to ten times as long. The Sega console was 50% more in price too, making it not palatable to parents.

That all aside, an impressively large library did manage to develop for the console with just over 360 titles being released worldwide, with somehow North America having more games than Japan.

What was actually good

Okay. So I started this off all negative, but honestly there were a few things good about the Game Gear. One of the things that made the Game Gear have a large library was that many of the games already existed on the Master System (SMS) and with very little tweaking, they could be made to play on the handheld.

In fact, just like the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, there are adapters available (albeit from third-parties) which enable plugging in SMS cartridges directly into the handheld.

My first speedrun: Kingdom Hearts 0 — “Jorts Before Breakfast”

The Game Gear gave me my first-ever speedrun game: Legend of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. This game was interesting for two reasons: the first being that it was ported from the Game Gear to the SMS for Brazilian customers and the second was that it was a Disney game that I actually enjoyed outside of Kingdom Hearts.

I last played it for GDQ Hotfix back in March 2021

It now has a place in my heart as a game that I would have otherwise ignored if I didn’t embark on exploring this console’s library.

An amazing port of a game that has no business existing on the platform

Did you know that a competent port of Panzer Dragoon was ported to the console? Panzer Dragoon Mini was a Japan exclusive and while it was not entirely great to play in contrast to its Sega Saturn counterpart, I didn’t think it was as bad as it could have been.

It played as well as well as it could for a third-person perspective-style game.

I didn’t finish it but I did get fairly far. It is not a game I wanted to continue playing again, but it stood out as rather impressive from a technical perspective.

I am biased here, but a licensed anime game was actually good

If you know me personally, I am a huge Sailor Moon fan. I’ve rewatched the original anime series twice, read the manga, seen the movies, and at some point I’m going to get a tattoo of an item from the series.

Box art from Sailor Moon S for Game Gear

More often than not, Sailor Moon games are awful, especially when they’re platformers (the Nintendo DS game exclusive to Italy comes to mind). Of all of the games I’ve played, the Game Gear one, Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon S is one of the better ones. Nowhere in the game does it feel like an environment Sailor Moon would actually be portrayed in, but at the same time, it was playable and importantly, enjoyable.

Games that were just awful

Okay. Now I can talk about the negatives. I could run through all of the ones that I hated, but I have opted to just narrow it down to three just so it seems even-handed.

Before I do, the Game Gear is really limited by just having a directional pad, two action buttons, and a start button — it has one less button than the Game Boy, which is used for ‘Select’.

This made attempts to port fighting games which rely on having at least three action buttons (and ideally four to six) fraught with compromises which should have been enough to suggest that they didn’t bother in the first place. This basically is me implying that I won’t bother remarking on a specific fighting game as with exception to one Mortal Kombat port, they were all just bad and played a role in my not bothering to complete my challenge.

I am hearing-impaired and I wish I were more impaired before this

I gave Chicago Syndicate a try, which is an arcade-style beat ’em up. This game was probably the first one to ever make me give up really quick.

This game was ridiculously slow-paced and could make your ears bleed.

The problem with the game wasn’t the fact that it was slow-paced and felt obtuse in design, it was the fact that my ears were being assaulted with what felt like someone decided a referee’s whistle was a musical instrument (or a smoke detector I guess).

I want to use more colourful words to describe this, but the slow pace and the assault on my ears made me absolutely abhor the short time I gave to this game.

A movie that killed a genre also had a video game tie-in that sucked

Cutthroat Island was suggested to have killed the pirate movie genre for almost a decade when it managed to achieve box office results a tenth of what it cost to produce. It came as no surprise that the video game tie-in for the handheld was not much better.

This is basically it — this is the game

This was probably the first game I labeled as “jank” and it really is as much. When you see the awesome fight scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean (which revived the genre post-Cutthroat), you expect fast-paced action and an expectation that you have no idea where the fight will go. However, this game manages to combine sword fighting with swimming in molasses all the while providing controls that make it feel like you’re eating ice cream with chop sticks.

This game has been put into a special list for other projects to say the least.

An EU game that fortunately remained in the EU

One of my favourite comics and cartoons growing up was Tintin. As an adult, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on the series and the author, Georges Remi (“Hergé”), but for now, I want to talk about Tintin [in] Tibet.

This is all you’re going to see in this game because good luck getting past the start.

The game is unnecessarily hard from the start. Controls were stiff and you’re immediately presented with platform jumps that just become obnoxious and difficult to achieve. You’re greeted with instant deaths because there’s just no margin for error. At release, French-language publications didn’t give it favourable reviews and I can most certainly understand why.

What about The Hedgehog?

I don’t like the Sonic games on the Game Gear much at all, but I especially disliked Sonic 1 and 2 for one reason and one reason only: resolution.

The Sega Master System has a resolution of 256x192 pixels and the Genesis did 256x224. With the Game Gear, it was limited to 160x144, meaning that 40–46% of the screen real estate you had on your television was lost when you developed on the handheld.

While a bit of an exaggeration as sprite reduction was made to accommodate the actual game, the red line shows the compromises made to make Sonic The Hedgehog or any made for TV game work on a Game Gear’s significantly smaller display.

Unlike his plumber rival, Sonic as a character is intended to go fast and keep going fast. This means that as a player, you must have lightning fast reflexes as you may encounter a pit, spikes, or an enemy and there are just lots of leaps of faith you must take in order to succeed. On a television with an adequate resolution, this is not a big deal as you often have enough head’s up, but being that the horizontal resolution is 40% smaller on the Game Gear, you really have no chance to predict what is coming.

The games that were intended to be on the Game Gear in the first place were playable and overall enjoyable (the Tails ones in particular), but Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 definitely do not fall into that category. They were built for the television first and were only put on the Game Gear because it was easy to port and easy to sell.

Closing remarks

I never owned a Game Gear growing up. When I was ten, my parents gave me a Game Boy for Christmas (I still have it too) and it provided me with many years of entertainment. One of my neighbourhood friends growing up did however have the console and while a few times I played it at his house, I never really felt all that invested in it.

5.8% of the games in the Game Gear Library were enough for me to consider speedrunning were I to bother.

Overall, the library ranges from a few gems, some mediocre titles, and a metric tonne of software that only existed to keep the system on life support as Sega just could not compete with Nintendo.

When streaming the games on Twitch, I really tried hard to not take shots at the developers of these games as many of them went on to make excellent things later on, but there were a handful of publishers where if I saw their name appear on screen, I’d begin to anticipate the awfulness that was waiting for me.

Most of the skipped games (33.9%) were sports games, entirely in Japanese, or were RPGs. 55.1% of the library as a whole was played by me and 11% I did not get around to.

About eight months into going through the catalogue almost every week, I had to give up. I was burnt out from trying to play these games even though my goal was never to finish them — just play them. I just could not do this anymore; and after chatting with a friend, I decided to end it. I’m still streaming, but the Game Gear and I are for the most part done.

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Queer dork with an interest in LGBTQ+ issues, computer security, video game speedrunning, and Python programming. You can see her stream on Twitch at @KateLibC.

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Cariad Keigher

Queer dork with an interest in LGBTQ+ issues, computer security, video game speedrunning, and Python programming. You can see her stream on Twitch at @KateLibC.